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Cannabis Legislation in New York: The Time Is Now To Get Social Equity Measures Right

For New York State, the passing of a bill legalising the possession, consumption and sale of cannabis may have to wait until next year, but now governors have been afforded both the time and the mandate to make good on promises to incorporate critical, comprehensive social equity measures before next year’s deadline. 

In January 2020, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo included plans to legalise cannabis in the state in his budget proposal for a second year in a row. Now for a consecutive year disagreements over tax revenue allocations, and how best to serve communities disproportionately affected by the war on drugs in New York, have been left unresolved after the Covid-19 pandemic overtook state legislative proceedings in March. Governor Cuomo and lead sponsor of the proposed bill, Senator Liz Krueger (D), both expressed optimism that it could be passed through the state budget on April 1st, but disputes ultimately proved too difficult to resolve before this year’s deadline. 

The bill, had it come to pass, would have been one of, if not the most progressive cannabis legislation to date in the United States. It would have provided automatic expungement for people convicted of cannabis-related crimes, allowed for low interest equity loans for individuals to enter into the cannabis market, and mandated an 18% tax on cannabis sales which would have directly funded new and in-place reparative funds. 25% of this tax would have gone toward an education and drug treatment fund, another 25% to the New York State lottery’s education aid fund, and a further 50% would have funded community reinvestment. 

In New York in 2019, criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana were eased, and the state began the process of expunging the criminal records of people convicted of possession in the past. In advance of the approaching April 1st deadline this year, it became apparent that many state legislators were in favour of pushing through a bill that would fully legalise the sale, possession and use of cannabis in the state, irrespective of whether disputes over social equity measures were resolved. 


Social equity measures must be written into legislation from the outset


Three months before the April deadline, the Drug Policy Alliance issued a statement arguing that social equity measures needed to be written into the legislation from the outset: “We’re encouraged by Governor Cuomo’s renewed ambition to get legalization done this year and to see social equity and small business incubator programs included in his plan,” they wrote. “Decriminalization alone will never be enough to right the injustices of discriminatory marijuana enforcement. We need to ensure any bill legalizing and regulating marijuana includes opportunities for New Yorkers who have been directly impacted by decades of prohibition to excel in the new market and must also dedicate significant funds to those communities most impacted by the war on drugs.”

Whilst Governor Cuomo’s “renewed ambition” to pass common-sense cannabis laws has been broadly met with praise, the continuation of strict control over access to medicinal marijuana, and the perpetuation of antagonistic policing, have undermined New York State’s legalisation efforts, and seen the state lag behind others in recent years. Additionally, slow progress is also in part due to the fact that New York does not allow for ‘citizen sponsored voter initiatives,’ which has expedited the legalisation process in other states.

Despite support for cannabis legalisation across the board, the harsh policing of marijuana crimes by the NYPD continues, even amidst the recently eased citywide lockdown due to the novel coronavirus. As evidenced by an incident in early May, when the NYPD Transit division took to Twitter to gloat about two cannabis-related ‘busts’, the aggressive policing of cannabis possession will not end until a complete legalisation bill is passed. “Some people may disagree,” the NYPD Transit division wrote, “but transporting ziplock bags of marijuana & a digital scale in your backpack does not make you an essential traveler in the eyes of the Transit police. Hopping a turnstile while doing so didn’t help either. Nice grab by our District 1 team!” 


The ‘Safer NY Act’


In the wake of recent mass protests across the US and the world, provoked by the murder of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25th, there has been a push for a collection of criminal justice reforms in New York called the ‘Safer NY Act’, which includes a bill which would legalise cannabis. Senator Julia Salazar (D) this week advocated for the Act in a statement, describing it as “a package of bills in the New York State Legislature that would help increase police transparency and help increase accountability to New Yorkers' most common encounters with police.” 

The bill states that the “enforcement of marijuana prohibition has been used to target and criminalize communities of color in New York State.” The MRTA (Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act,) it says, “will help address the discriminatory enforcement or marijuana prohibition statutes and will ensure that there is reinvestment in the communities most impacted by the war on drugs.”  

Whether the Safer NY Act passes this year or not, it must now become clear to New York politicians and legislators that they cannot strive to bring cannabis legalisation into law without first ensuring that comprehensive social equity measures are put in place. 


State legislators must go further than police reform


Last Friday, New York City passed landmark police reform legislation aimed at increasing police accountability and transparency by ensuring that personnel records of police officers are made public, whilst also enforcing a series of other controls such as a ban on chokeholds and “race-based” 911-calls, but state legislators must go further and end the continually aggressive policing of marijuana possession and other low-level drug crimes. 

New York legislators and Governor Cuomo have been afforded both the time, up to the 2021 budget deadline next April at the latest, and the mandate, through widespread calls for police and criminal justice reforms across the country in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, to proceed with the most progressive cannabis reforms yet seen in the United States. A real opportunity has presented itself to make right the wrongs of the NYPD’s continually antagonistic policing of cannabis use and possession, to de-escalate the ongoing war on drugs which historically, has ravaged black and hispanic neighbourhoods in New York City, and to provide opportunities for the most affected communities and individuals convicted of low-level drug crimes. 

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